Oct 26, 2021

Is ‘Truth’ as Objective as We Think?

Exploring the definition, development, transmission, and evaluation of polarized narratives at different levels of society, with a focus on youth in Northern Ireland.

By Jocelyn Dautel, Bethany Corbett, Jennifer Watling Neal, Kathleen Corriveau, Emma Flynn, Mariah Kornbluh, Christin Scholz, Lara Wood, Jing Xu

This post is the third in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

Humans are curious creatures, often motivated to seek truth. Yet, truth can be difficult to discern, especially in our world today with increasingly abundant access to information—and misinformation. Most often, we learn information from others at various levels of our social circles—for instance, from family members, friends, neighbors, educators, or those in our social media networks. Information sharing is an integral part of human interaction that is inherently rewarding and serves to build social relationships (Scholz et al., 2017). But the way we produce and consume information can be biased based on our social ties (Harris & Corriveau, 2011), and unwittingly influenced by our philosophies and worldviews (Xu, 2017). Thus, the truth, as we know it, may not be as objective as we think.

This is particularly true for polarized ‘truths’ that have the capacity to reduce human flourishing, as has been seen in relation to systemic cultural and political conflict or spread of harmful health-related misinformation, in turn influencing individual wellbeing. For instance, misinformation about the efficacy of social distancing and mask-wearing has resulted in part to the continued spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and mistrust of scientific evidence. And, polarized beliefs about historical and political issues have contributed to intractable conflict in divided societies, such as Northern Ireland (NI). Our goal is to explore how such polarized truths are defined and produced, and how they are evaluated and transmitted at different levels of society, such as individual, micro- (family, peers), meso- (schools, social media), and macro-levels (political and historical narratives and cultural evolution) (Neal & Neal, 2013). Through using mixed methods to understand the cultural and social transmission of ‘truth,’ we hope to empower epistemic vigilance, or motivation to evaluate the reliability of the information we receive (Sperber et al., 2010), and in turn, promote human flourishing. To begin tackling this grand challenge, our team of international and interdisciplinary scholars first will explore biases in young people’s exposure to, and transmission of, polarized ‘truths’ in Northern Ireland, a historically divided society.

Learning ‘Truth’ from Others
Across our evolutionary history, humans have always relied on other individuals to produce, interpret, and transmit information (Sperber et al., 2010). This phenomenon, known as social learning, occurs through formal and informal routes, such as schooling, play, or social media, and has many benefits. Imagine if every new generation had to reinvent the wheel—for instance, learn how to use different functional objects anew, or recreate social norms—this would of course impede development of modern societies (Csibra & Gergely, 2011). With the growing abundance of available information, humans increasingly rely on learning from others.

Yet, even from early childhood, we are selective in who we choose to learn from (Wood, Kendal, & Flynn, 2013). Young children, for example, demonstrate greater trust in information from familiar informants, and those who endorse the status quo (Corriveau, Fusaro, & Harris, 2009; Corriveau & Harris, 2009). Thus, through social learning, truths can diverge and become polarized along group lines, potentially to the detriment of human flourishing. For instance, exposure to polarized historical, political, and cultural messages may perpetuate intractable group conflict (Bar-Tal, Diamond & Nasie, 2017). We focus our study on young people, who are especially susceptible to cultural transmission. But, young people are not merely passive consumers of information (Xu, 2017); young people can develop epistemic vigilance and they can also be agents of positive change (Harris, Koenig, Corriveau & Jaswal, 2018; Kornbluh, Rogers, & Williams, 2021; Taylor, 2020). Studying the development of beliefs in young people provides insight into the processes underlying entrenched beliefs in adulthood, and identifies possible avenues for intervention through empowering epistemic vigilance.

Figure 1. A ‘Peace Wall’ dividing Catholic and Protestant communities in NI (left) and NI mapped by predominant religion (right): green represents majority Catholic and orange represents majority Protestant. Image Credits, Left to Right: Photo © Gerald England (cc-by-sa/2.0); User:DrKay, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading parallel stories: Are texts polarized? At least two ‘truths’ in Northern Ireland
It has been said that, in Northern Ireland “there is not one history, but at least two” (Gallagher, 2017, pg. 191). Northern Ireland represents an ideal context for our first studies of the transmission of polarized truths. Here, young people navigate emerging Protestant or Catholic social identities that represent a complex intersection of cultural, national, and political backgrounds; all linked to historic intergroup conflict. The society is in relative peace following the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement), put in place to conclude a period of violent conflict commonly known as ‘The Troubles,’ which took place from the late 1960s through 1998. Yet, Northern Ireland continues to be deeply divided along group lines. Young people often grow up in largely homogeneous neighborhoods (>90% Catholic or >90% Protestant, see Figure 1). Although these separate communities are sometimes even on adjacent streets. Despite physical proximity, Catholic and Protestant young people show preferences for different historical, cultural, and political symbols often visible in their respective neighborhoods (see Helping Kids! Lab; Dautel et al., 2020). Depending on religious affiliation, young people attend different cultural events, participate in different hobbies, attend different schools, worship in different places, and most fittingly for this study, are exposed to polarized narratives in all aspects of society—in homes, schools, communities, peer networks, social media, politics—making Northern Ireland ripe for studying how polarized information is evaluated and transmitted across layers of the society. Our team will use multiple novel methods to approach the study of transmission of polarized information amongst young people across different levels of society in Northern Ireland.

Figure 2. Examples of murals decorating Protestant (left) and Catholic (right) homes. Image Credits, Left to Right: Photo © Eric Jones (cc-by-sa/2.0); Olaf Baumann, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons.

The game of ‘telephone:’ How are polarized ‘truths’ shared within and between group members?
The division across Northern Ireland’s broader society is mirrored in their educational system: schools are segregated according to community background, and are typically defined as State-controlled (majority Protestant) or Catholic-maintained (majority Catholic). We are interested in whether these types of structural divisions influence what young people learn, as historical narratives play an important role in shaping collective identity (Wertsch, 2020). Are young people learning two parallel histories in school? While all schools follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum, based on the National Curriculum for England and Wales, teachers have the freedom to select the historical and religious content they teach, creating the possibility for divergent truths to arise in a divided society. The content that is taught in schools has been found to reflect the religious composition of their classrooms, what teachers believe families and communities would like young people to learn, and teachers’ perception that students’ beliefs are already entrenched (Kitson, 2007). Preliminary evidence from teacher and student interviews suggests differences in some aspects of historical content being delivered across different types of schools (Gallagher, 2017). We seek to empirically study variation in the content taught across schools by employing the novel method of text analysis. Text analysis (Jackson et al., 2021) identifies linguistic patterns in text, creating structured data out of free text. For instance, we can count how many times certain words arise across different texts (e.g. British and Irish, or Catholic and Protestant) or the meaning behind different language structures. This area of research explores connections between macro- and meso-levels of society by empirically examining whether variation in cultural and historical messages infiltrate young peoples’ school texts and curriculum materials across divided schools.

We will also explore the interpersonal dynamic of sharing polarized ‘truths.’ What information do you discuss with those who you know share your group membership or cultural background? Might you adapt the message you share with those who you know don’t share your background? Using an empirical version of the age-old game of ‘Telephone,’ (also known as ‘Chinese Whispers’ in the United Kingdom, or the diffusion chain technique in research; see Flynn, 2008), we will ask young people in Northern Ireland to share messages containing polarized information to each other in a linear chain, first listening to a message from one peer and then recalling it for the subsequent peer in the chain. Young people will be randomly assigned to transmit polarized messages across chains of peers belonging to their own social group (Catholic to Catholic or Protestant to Protestant) or to chains of peers that vary in social group membership (Catholic to Protestant to Catholic, etc.). We expect that certain aspects of polarized messages may be selectively transmitted onwards, perhaps due to young people’s social motivations (e.g., upholding the status of their group or increasing belonging with their group) or biases in memory (e.g., for positive content relating to their group). Thus, polarized information may be more likely to stay true to original form when transmitted across members of the same social group. Alternatively, polarized information transmitted across members of different social groups (e.g. Catholic to Protestant) may either further polarize, or unify, perhaps depending on the content. Our findings will be relevant for the promotion of human flourishing in the context of peace-building and beyond.

Figure 3. Intergroup conflict to which children from Catholic or Protestant communities can be exposed. Image Credit: Hayes MKII, CC BY-SA 2.0.

How does sharing our ‘truths’ feel?
Lastly, we will dig deeper into how thoughts and emotions contribute to young people’s communication of polarized information by conducting interviews with young people in Northern Ireland after they participate in the ‘telephone’ game with peers from their own social group, or the other social group. Young people will be asked to reflect on their experiences of consuming and transmitting polarized information (e.g., in what circumstances are you wary of sharing information you have encountered?). We will analyze themes in young people’s direct reflections to complement our experimental measure of bias when sharing polarized information, and potentially reveal targets for future intervention. This method allows young people to think about their understanding and construction of truth and explore avenues for meaningful dialogue about polarized topics (Kornbluh, Johnson, & Hart, 2021). Qualitative data can further illuminate novel and innovative factors in the process of truth sharing for young people, yielding opportunities for future intervention and discovery.

Concluding Remarks
This project is a first step towards investigating the many mechanisms humans use to produce, transmit, and consume ‘truth.’ We undertake this project at an important point in time, as human flourishing is increasingly threatened by the spread of polarized information. By investigating the communication of polarized truth from a developmental lens, there is a significant opportunity to develop a more complete understanding of the spread of misinformation. While we begin our research in Northern Ireland, we encourage further studies across cultures and across different domains of polarized issues. Studying diverse communities and issues will allow the development of more robust theories and interventions to ward against the uptake of misinformation and support human flourishing. Our call to action; by identifying the basic mechanisms that support epistemic vigilance across intersecting levels of societies, we can promote human flourishing through creating more open-minded, knowledgeable, and peaceful societies.

These ideas represent a collaboration across an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers including Jocelyn Dautel, Bethany Corbett, Kathleen Corriveau, Emma Flynn, Mariah Kornbluh, Jennifer Watling Neal, Christin Schulz, Lara Wood, and Jing Xu. This group was brought together through a series of workshops funded by the Jacobs Foundation and the Society of Research in Child Development.

Jocelyn Dautel is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Chicago. Her research explores how children navigate their social worlds, with a particular focus on how social and cultural contexts shape children’s thinking about others. For instance, her research finds that certain social contexts (e.g. salient intergroup conflict) may exacerbate children’s ingroup preferences or social bias, while other social contexts (e.g. exposure to diversity) may attenuate social bias. Dr. Dautel is a member of the John Templeton Foundation-funded Developing Belief Network, leading research in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland on within- and between-culture variation in the acquisition and transmission of religious beliefs. She is also a co-founder of the Helping Kids! Lab at Queen’s University, Belfast studying children’s early reasoning about conflict-related groups and the implications for intergroup empathy and prosocial behavior as precursors to peacebuilding. With a focus on cross-cultural research in contexts of intergroup conflict, Jocelyn’s long-term goal is to contribute to debates about unique and universal processes in the development of social cognition and intergroup relations.

Bethany Corbett is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Queen's University Belfast. Her Ph.D. research focused on children's reasoning about choices that caused poor outcomes for other people, and their corresponding emotional responses. Moving away from strictly developmental accounts (at what age can children feel certain emotions,) a focus was placed on the context in which children make choices to benefit others and experience emotions (how spontaneously does this occur, and in which individuals). In addition to the proposed Templeton Foundation project, she is currently involved in projects examining the prosocial behavior (i.e. behavior which benefits others) of children from post-conflict societies, and how this relates to their reasoning about social categories and identity. 

Jennifer Watling Neal is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Broadly, her research focuses on understanding how social networks are associated with children’s and educators’ behavior in schools. More narrowly, she addresses questions like: (1) How are relationships in childhood and adolescence associated with aggression, prosocial behavior, and personalities? (2) How do children and teachers perceive classroom relationships and how "accurate" are they in these perceptions? and (3) how can social networks be leveraged to improve educators’ access to and implementation of evidence-based programs and practices? Jennifer has collected social network data in a range of urban, suburban, and rural school settings in the United States and England. In addition to her substantive interests, Jennifer is interested in advancing social network theory and methods to understand developmental processes.

Kathleen Corriveau is Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Applied Human Development and the director of the Social Learning Lab at Boston University. Her research focuses on social and cognitive development in childhood, with a specific focus on how children assess the trustworthiness of people and of information. She has received numerous awards, including selection as a Rising Star and current Fellow of APS, an NSF CAREER award, and an Early Career Award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Her work has been funded by NSF, the Templeton Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, APS, and APA. Together with Rebekah Richert, she is currently directing the Developing Belief Network.

Emma Flynn, as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Queen’s University Belfast, is responsible for enhancing the University's high-performing and innovative research environment. She also cultivates and advances effective relationships and collaborations with key institutional partners, including funders, government, health bodies, businesses and charities at regional, national and international level, driving the University's world-leading reputation for research excellence and its contribution to economic growth. A senior academic leader within Queen's, Professor Flynn is a member of the University's Executive Board, which is responsible for steering and supporting the strategic direction of the University. Professor Flynn is a leader in her research field – developmental and comparative psychology – with multiple international and inter-disciplinary collaborations.

Mariah Kornbluh is an Assistant Professor in Community Psychology at the University of South Carolina. She received her BA in psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, and her Ph.D. in ecological-community psychology at Michigan State University. Kornbluh's research explores how children and adolescents marginalized or social excluded develop an understanding of structural inequalities and the agency to engage in social action (i.e., develop critical consciousness) and how such consciousness empowers them to navigate structural inequities. Her research often consists of partnering with young people (i.e., youth-led participatory action research) as well as applying social network analysis to contribute to an inclusive, open, and action-oriented developmental science. 

Christin Scholz is an Assistant Professor in Persuasive and Health Communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) at the University of Amsterdam, where she directs the ACHC Communication, Brain and Society (CoBraS) lab. She received a (research) master’s degree in communication science from the University of Amsterdam and a Ph.D. in communication (2018) from the University of Pennsylvania (USA) with a focus on communication neuroscience and health communication. Her current work is funded, among others, by a Veni grant from the Dutch science foundation.  Research in the CoBraS lab examines the social life of persuasive media messages: that is the ways in which social interactions between individuals impact how messages are perceived, understood, and implemented. The lab applies diverse methods to these problems including fMRI, field experimentation, survey methodologies, and geolocation tracking.

Lara Wood is a lecturer in the Division of Psychology at Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland. Lara received her BA in Psychology from Sussex University (2005), her master's in Research Methods in Developmental Psychology (2009), and her doctorate on children and chimpanzees' selective social learning (2013), both from Durham University. Lara's research focuses on social cognition in human and nonhuman primates with a specific focus on culture and its influence on behavior. Lara has worked with a range of primate species and with children from infancy to early adulthood. Lara is an associate editor and Humanities and Social Science Communications. 

Jing Xu is an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. She holds a B.A. and M.A. from Tsinghua University, China, a Ph.D. in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, and received postdoctoral training in developmental psychology at the University of Washington. Her research primarily focuses on children’s moral development in contemporary China, martial law-era Taiwan and cross-cultural comparative contexts. She adopts an interdisciplinary approach that puts anthropological and psychological theories in conversation, combines ethnography, experimental and computational methods, and draws from the broad field of Chinese studies. She is the author of The Good Child: Moral Development in a Chinese Preschool (Stanford University Press, 2017). She has published peer-reviewed articles in journals spanning multiple disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, history and area studies.


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